League of Gentlemen review: Royston Vasey returns for a 20th anniversary
As Royston Vasey slips off the map, the country around it is sliding into nowhere
Mickey (Mark Gatiss), Pauline (Steve Pemberton), and Ross (Reece Shearsmith) in 'The League of Gentlemen'. Photograph: James Stack/BBC
Like a venerable automobile, The League of Gentlemen (BBC Two, Monday, 10pm) has now attained classic status through age alone – this is the 20th anniversary of its appearance as a radio show, although the group is slightly older. Now, like some of those motors, it is briefly back on again.
Even against the generalised absurdity and postmodern irony of 1990s comedies, the League was always an acquired taste. With shivers of Monty Python and The Wickerman, it was a comedy horror sketch show defined by its cinematic creepiness and giddy grotesquery, by a distinctly British emphasis on the pleasure of catchphrases (“This is a local shop for local people!”) and an inexhaustible fondness for seeing grown men in dresses. How kind have the years been?
For the Gentlemen themselves, very kind indeed. (Member Mark Gatiss now appears in half of all television shows worth watching and writes the other half.) The comedy itself, on the other hand, almost requires some kind of explanation, as when Benjamin and his Aunty Dal – Gatiss, as naked as Lady Godiva – step into the taxi belonging to Barbara, a growling, partially glimpsed, transgendered character, whose car is now a militantly safe space. “People used to make fun of the likes of us,” she roars. “We are no longer the source of cheap laughs.” Is that meant as a cooling kind of double-braced irony, or a faint apology? Things were different a millennium ago.
Thankfully, in the show’s most welcome departure, they are no longer the source of cheap laugh tracks either. The canned audience, another anachronism, has been jettisoned, meaning the jokes come without being underlined, and the borders between what is amusing and unsettling are no longer policed.
That could be the benefit of its last incarnation, as a film, but it also allows something more serious and even sad about the declining Britain this town of Royston Vasey parallels.
Several businesses have collapsed, in a distress of puns: the bra shop “gone bust”, the soup restaurant advertising “reduced stock”. Everything, in fact, is in irreversible decline, from the funeral of Harvey Denton (gone, but not entirely abandoned) to a dismal Food Bank (with an epicurean ATM), to the potential erasure of Royston Valley itself, literally on the verge of being scrubbed from the map.
That is as much of a plot for these three television specials as can be discerned, the first of which is chiefly occupied with reintroductions after 15 years’ absence. Pauline, its jobcentre bully, is trapped in her fading mind, cajoled into the sketch show of “reminiscence therapy”; Tubbs and Edward, of the Local Shop, are revealed late in dire new circumstances; and Papa Lazarou, the black-faced, wife-trapping circus master – their most uncanny creation – is nowhere to be seen.
Like him, though, a sense of disappearance has long guided The League of Gentlemen: the Reverend Bernice, the town’s mayor, even takes pride in its vast Missing People record. For a comedy that has always nudged at the textures of a discomfiting nightmare, that might be the most chilling joke of all: not that Royston Vasey and its ghoulish eccentrics are falling off the face of the world, but that the real country around it is sliding into nowhere.